Article — From the February 1955 issue

Marx Was a City Boy

Or, why communism may fail

The men in the Kremlin have never liked—or understood—the farmer. A distinguished student of the Soviets explains why the resulting blunders by Russia and her satellites might prove fatal to their power.

I am by profession an economist and economic historian. The bulk of my academic life has been taken up with studying the world’s economic development during the nineteenth century. I have just ended three years’ work on the Soviet Union and Communist China. The task there was
not to study Communist economies but to discern, if possible, the shape and prospects for change in the whole societies now dominated from Moscow and Peking: their politics, social life, foreign policy, and their economies.

The title of this article reflects perhaps the most important single idea about Communism which I have acquired during these three years of study.

I believe that Marx failed to understand the farmer. From that misunderstanding has flowed a century of Communist theory and practice, And, more important, from Communist theory and practice has arisen a set of problems whose solution or failure of solution may well wreck the international Communist movement—or force profound and wholesome change upon it.

Perhaps the most dangerous enemy of Communism is the stoic, passive peasant in Eastern Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union itself, China, and Northern Vietnam. He will certainly not revolt on his own under present circumstances; but even a police state cannot make him increase his output on the scale Communist plans require.

The passive figure of the peasant, trapped in totalitarianism, is joined as a potentially mortal enemy of Communism by the farmer in the Free World—notably in the underdeveloped areas and perhaps most notably, at the moment, by the awakening Indian peasant.

This, in any case, is my theme. I should like to develop it by tracing out how Communism has come to tangle at cross purposes with the peasant; the consequences of this generally quiet struggle: the problems which it creates for the Communist leadership; and the opportunities it opens to the Free World.

The story begins with Marx himself. There is an excellent book by David Mitrany called Marx Against the Peasant. Mr. Mitrany’s book examines the trouble Communism had from the beginning with agriculture and the farmer. Marx’s theory of history—though couched in the heavy and pretentious style of Germanic scholarship—is essentially a simple one. He believed that by an inevitable series of class struggles, bourgeois capitalism had conquered feudalism; and that the urban working class, created by industrial capitalism, would inevitably inherit power and authority when capitalism had dug its grave.

This theory represented Marx’s reading of British history as he looked backward and forward from the middle of the nineteenth century. As he wrote he could see in England a decline of the political power of agriculture and an increasing dependence of Britain on imported rather than home-produced food. This—plus the fact that he was a bookish city fellow—led him to dispose of the farmer, in his theory and his prescriptions for the future, in a highly casual way. For example, the Communist Manifesto of 1848, in making its recommendations for the future, simply had this to say about agriculture:

The establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.

In short, Marx’s notion was that history would make of the farmer simply an industrial worker of one sort or another; and he could embrace the farmer ultimately in the same formula he mechanically applied to the industrial working class. The farmer, with his passionate. desire to own his own piece of land and to till it in his own interest, annoyed Marx. As a theorist of history, Marx found the farmer out of place; and there is a note of human irritation and annoyance in Marx’s treatment of him. Marx allowed no special place for him and for agriculture in his major writing.

One can dispose of such matters with ease—in theory. But the practical politics of Marxism, from the very beginning, ran into trouble with the peasant of Central and Eastern Europe. Before the revolutions in Russia of 1917, Marxist politicians had the greatest difficulty in gaining any significant base of support among the peasants. The real discontents of European peasants, focussed on land reform and redistribution, were expressed through peasant parties which grew up in the fifty years or so before the first world war. These parties were generally non-Marxist and, often, anti-Marxist. Except for a brief flirtation with the notion that the Russian village organization—the mir—could be built into a Socialist state, Marxist ideas did not harmonize naturally with the impulses of the European peasant. Brushing the peasant aside as a kind of miscast rural industrial worker, Marxism abandoned him to other leaders.

Two Practical Politicians

Now comes a monumental irony of modern history. Without the peasant’s unsatisfied desire to own his land, there would not have been a Russian revolution in 1917 and, almost certainly, the Bolsheviks would not have triumphed in the Communist phase of that revolution in November 1917. Not Marxism or Socialism or Communism, but the peasant’s great longing for land was the most powerful single engine of the Russian upheaval of 1917.

In 1917 Lenin perceived this fact. He was thoroughly prepared to junk or alter Marxist theory in the interests of the immediate struggle for power. As a practical politician, he managed to harness a good deal of the discontent which had infected the peasant-born Russian armies; and he used this non-Marxist—almost anti-Marxist—motive to seize power.

Lenin’s 1917 slogans were: Land, Bread, and Peace. Despite seventy years of Marxism, in the showdown Lenin rated the peasant’s desire for land the most effective political force to which he could appeal.

In China the peasant was even more important to Communist victory than he was in Russia. At first, the Chinese Communists sought to achieve power by mobilizing strength in the cities. They organized the industrial workers and infiltrated union organizations in the approved manner. It took a whole series of defeats, starting in 1927, to disabuse them of this strategy.

The emergence of Mao-tse Tung between 1927 and 1935 developed directly from his two perceptions: (1) that the desire of the poor peasant for a bit of land which he could call his own was a powerful political force; and (2) that if he associated the Communist movement with that force, he had a chance to build an effective military establishment in the countryside, with which he might ultimately seize power. This strategy was regarded for some time in Moscow as unorthodox.

From a Western point of view, however, there is nothing inconsistent with Communism about it. Lenin in his own way was equally flexible in his Marxism. The underlying truth is, of course, that long before 1917 and long before 1949, when Communism was victorious in China, Communism had ceased to be a philosophy of history and an ideological movement in the Western sense. It had become primarily a tactical conspiracy, by a self-appointed elite, for the pursuit and maintenance of power. As such, it was prepared to make its slogans fit its power requirements. Lenin, Stalin, and Mao all did this when occasion demanded.

We are confronted, then, with a first-class irony of modern history. Marxist theory had—and has—no sympathy or interest in the desires of the farmer. Nevertheless, Communist tacticians in both Russia and China achieved power in large part by harnessing to their purposes the peasant’s aspiration for his own land.

What happened to the peasant once the Communists took over? In Russia, Lenin found himself by 1921 in a position of crisis. The cities were not receiving their normal supply of food from the peasants, and famine stalked the land. Under the impact of wartime Communism, industry had fallen to about 20 per cent of prewar output. Perhaps most important, Lenin faced serious’ opposition within the ranks of his party. There were many in the Communist rank and file who had helped make the revolution of November 1917 but were angry and distressed in 1920 and 1921 to see emerge a bureaucratic dictatorship rather than the humanistic regime for which they had fought. In this period of crisis, Lenin ruthlessly crushed his political opponents, but appeased the peasants—for the moment. He launched a New Economic Policy one of whose aims was to induce the peasant to produce again for the urban market.

Between 1921 and 1929 the Russian peasant was basically free. He operated the land he had gained in the revolutionary year of 1917 for his own benefit and that of his family. He sold his grain on an open market, paying a fixed tax in grain which he generally judged to be fair: The more able and vigorous peasants acquired land and grew relatively well-to-do; and Russian agriculture, sustained by individual incentive, revived.

Miracle by Brute Force

With the launching of the First Five Year Plan in 1929 all this changed. Stalin had triumphed as the sale successor to Lenin after four years of bitter infighting within the Communist party. With his personal authority assured he turned to the problem of building a heavy industry in Russia and fastening an effective political control over the country. Whatever Stalin’s economic reasons for the collectivization of agriculture may have been, there is no doubt that one of its primary purposes was to guarantee political and social control of the Russian peasantry. From a Communist perspective the Russian peasantry enjoyed an unnatural and dangerous freedom in the 1920s.

The result was, of course, the brutal rapid collectivization during which, on Stalin’s testimony to Churchill, ten million Russians died. More than that, there was a 20 per cent fall in agricultural output. And as Khrushchev revealed in September 1953 Soviet farm production has never really recovered from the blow of collectivization.

How could Russia achieve its extraordinary industrial and military growth since 1929 with stagnant or even declining agricultural production? It could do so because Stalin launched industrialization at a peculiar moment in Russian history. The Russia which the Communists inherited was normally a grain-exporting nation. Before the first world war Russian grain exports were as high as 10,000,000 tons, and even in the midst of the First Five Year Plan Stalin could wring 5,000,000 tons of grain exports a year from the Russian soil and—at the cost of some starvation—from its peasants. The Soviet leadership has chosen to eat its way through its natural grain exports since 1929. And it has converted Russia into a country which may import more farm produce than it exports.

A second factor made Stalin’s policy workable. Despite its relative poverty, by Western European and American standards, the Russian standard of food consumption as of 1928 could he compressed and reduced without actually causing chronic starvation. This is another margin which the Russian Communists exploited.

Third, Russia began in 1929 with a sufficient industrial capacity to avoid the need for an expanding foreign trade during its First Five Year Plan. It could produce a high proportion of what it needed for industrialization from its own plants. A decline in agricultural exports in Russia did not, therefore, make industrialization impossible.

For twenty-five years, then, Russia has been able to afford an unproductive and enslaved agriculture. Now, however, history is beginning to catch up with Stalin’s ruthless decisions of 1929. The population in Russia has continued to rise and people have moved into cities. It is clear to Moscow’s planners that the smoldering, unproductive peasantry is a serious and costly problem. No issue since Stalin’s death has used up as much Soviet newsprint as the agricultural problem. It does not threaten immediate crisis in Russia; but it is evident that the leaders in Moscow no longer feel the same complacency that Stalin did about the consequences of collectivized agriculture.

Much the same is true of Communist-dominated Eastern Europe. There, too, Communist collectivization policies, although somewhat less drastic than Stalin’s, have broken the link between the peasant’s effort and his return; and agricultural output is sagging. There, too, in the post-Stalin period the newspapers are filled with stories of agricultural shortage and low productivity.

It is symptomatic of the agricultural decline in Russia and Eastern Europe that, after breaking from Moscow in 1948, Tito almost immediately began to back-track, on collectivization. There is every evidence that Tito learned rapidly that a system which does not appeal to the peasant’s self-interest is a costly totalitarian luxury.

The men in Moscow face, then, a significant dilemma. They know that high agricultural productivity demands that the Russian and Eastern European peasant be given real incentives to work hard and to produce efficiently. More than that, these concessions must appear to the peasant as permanent enough to inspire him to change his whole outlook on production. He has been beaten down and imprisoned for many years by the Communist leadership. He knows all too well the usual tricks of stick and carrot. His productivity cannot be turned on and, off like an electric light switch.

But if the peasant is to be given stable incentives, Moscow has to accept two major consequences: (1) The degree of political and, social control in the countryside must be lifted so that the peasant can enjoy an important degree of individual freedom. (2) Goods must be produced which the peasant wants to buy and can buy with what he earns. This means that the amount of production going into heavy industry and armaments must be relatively reduced in favor of consumers’ goods. Together these decisions involve, if they are taken—and they have not yet been taken—a significant reversal of political, social, and economic policies which Communism has systematically followed wherever it has seized power.

At present Communist leadership in Moscow and Eastern Europe has acknowledged that the problem exists; but it has drawn back from a fundamental solution. Moscow has by no means decided to reverse the process of collectivization and to give the peasant the environment and the incentives he requires if food is to be produced efficiently on the desired scale. Nevertheless the discussion in the Soviet and satellite press reflects a recognition that for the long pull the situation of agriculture under Communism is unsatisfactory, even dangerous to the leadership.

Thus the Russian and Eastern European peasant has demonstrated that he cannot be quickly converted into a rural industrial worker according to Marx’s formula, even by the full power of a modem totalitarian state. As Mitrany concluded:

Marx’s analysis of the evolution of agriculture has nowhere been proved right; his prescription for the organization of agricultural production has never come to be practiced as part of a normal economic evolution. The Marxist view of the political standing of the peasants has been made ridiculous by the dependence of the Communist advance on the peasants’ revolutionary impetus and action; while its expectation of a natural alliance between proletariat and poor peasants, as a result of class division in the village, has, in spite of much Communist effort, nowhere come to pass.

The Attack on the Chinese Farmer

In the Far East the Chinese peasant is beginning to make a similar demonstration. This is a different and more serious matter than it is in Europe, where the problem does not threaten an immediate major crisis. Russia and Eastern Europe can, in extremity, produce enough and export enough industrial goods to buy food abroad. To some extent this is what Russia is now doing. It is, of course, grotesque that Russia and Eastern Europe should become food-importing areas; but the situation in China is, from the Communist point of view, vastly more dangerous.

There, too, the Communists, once they had effectively seized power, turned on their peasant support much as Stalin did in 1929. They made good their promise to redistribute land from the rich to the poor peasant in 1949-50. But they did not redivide the land because they wanted a nation of small independent proprietors. They did it in order to wreck the social, economic, and political power of the village gentry and other middle-class elements in China whose income depended on the ownership of substantial amounts of land. In this way, agents of Peking supplanted the complex and diffuse authorities of village life.

When this job was done they began immediately to push the peasant into collectivized farms. The Chinese Communist model is drawn from Eastern Europe. rather than the Soviet Union. Its key institution is the producers’ co-operative, from whose total output a family receives a share. At first the share is computed according to the amount of land and equipment the’ family puts into the co-operative, plus the amount of labor contributed. But it is official policy that shares will rapidly become proportional to current labor, not past capital contribution. The family will then lose not only its capital but also its feeling of connection between output and effort. It is a share in the total that each family gets—a total averaging the vigorous and weak, the conscientious and lazy.

The producers’ co-operative is buttressed by policies which require the peasant to sell all his marketable output to the government at low fixed prices; which sterilize his cash in government banks; and which limit what he can buy through the spreading monopoly of government stores. There is not the slightest doubt that the Chinese peasant dislikes this collectivized organization of agriculture; and there is not the slightest doubt that the Chinese Communists have the intention and the ability to complete the process of collectivization they have begun. The latest statements indicate that they expect to place more than half of China’s peasants in producers’ co-operatives by the end of this decade; and the government monopoly of the grain trade is already a universal fact.

Why have the Chinese Communists betrayed their peasant supporters? Why are they taking risks with the level of agricultural output in China hy damaging the peasant’s incentive to produce?

They have launched this policy of collectivization for two reasons. First, they feel that unless the peasant is collectivized he will not be under Communist political control. Some 80 per cent of the people of China are peasants; that is, about 500,000,000 people are in rural families. In such a nation a free agriculture means virtually a free people. And this would be a denial to the Communists of their victory. Second, the Communists have decided to build, as a matter of over-riding priority, a heavy industry base: both to supply their armed forces and to guarantee that China can later continue to industrialize out of its own resources. This requires that the government control intimately the agricultural output of the country and that the government be in a position to use it for its own purposes: to sell abroad for arms and machinery; to feed the army, the Communist administration, its horde of men in forced labor, and the rapidly growing cities. The government in Peking does not appear confident that it can achieve this control over output unless collective farms are installed. Peking appears willing, in short, to risk less output if it can fully control what there is.

This is a greater risk for Communist China in the 1950s than it was in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Whereas the Soviet Union could achieve its industrialization plan with a 20 per cent decline in agricultural output, China requires something like a 10 per cent increase. This is so because, unlike the Soviet Union, Communist China must increase its foreign trade to industrialize and because population is growing so rapidly in China. Peking now claims a population increase of 2 per cent per year, which means an extra twelve million mouths to feed.

What will happen if agricultural output does not increase by 10 per cent?We should be quite clear that up to a point the Chinese Communists can and will balance their books with starvation. In fact, to some extent, this happened last spring and is likely to happen again next spring. A Communist control apparatus can handle a high degree of discontent; and starvation is chronic in China.

There are, however, two dangers to Peking. First, a sustained failure of output to increase or a substantial decrease could create so vast a hunger in China that even a Communist control system could not prevent some kind of crisis. Second, a demonstration that Communist techniques in Asia lead to chronic starvation could damage or destroy the powerful belief in underdeveloped areas that Communism holds the key to rapid economic growth. It is this belief which is one of Communism’s greatest assets in the Cold War: in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa, and even in Latin America.

Revolution by Consent

The most important conclusion at which I have arrived from three years’ immersion in the study of Communism is this: it lies within the capabilities of the United States and the Free World to shatter the belief in Communism as the unique method for rapid development. And we can do this over the next decade—by, say, 1965.

The faith and judgment which lie behind this conclusion stem not only from knowledge of how the peasant’s human response to Communist methods has affected agricultural output. This conclusion is supported by results already achieved in the Free World, notably in India, by the techniques of freedom, the method of individual consent.

India has begun its attempt to industrialize in a way exactly opposite to Communist China. China-is investing in heavy industry. India has plowed its scarce capital, for the First Five Year Plan, primarily into agriculture. China is forcing its peasants into collectives, by threat and force. India is trying to induce the peasant to improve his methods, to increase the use of chemical fertilizers, to install new irrigation facilities, to double-crop his land. All this is done painstakingly by education and example.

The results thus far are remarkably hopeful. The substantial increase in agricultural output planned in India for the First Five Year Plan has been achieved in three years; and the evidence is that a constructive chain reaction is sweeping the Indian countryside, far beyond the demonstration
villages. The returns are not yet in; but there is a distinct possibility that this truth will become evident: in underdeveloped areas, starting from scratch, with a population predominantly made up of peasants, the method of consent is not only right morally, it is right technically as well.

A Free World economic program, with strong U.S. support, might demonstrate this simple truth, notably in the competition between India and Communist China. These two great nations are simultaneously attempting a radical transformation. Over the next decade they plan to put themselves in a position where economic growth will be relatively automatic. Throughout Asia, and throughout the vast underdeveloped portions of the world, the relative performance of Communism and Democracy at this monumental task will be closely watched and weighed.

Even Communist totalitarianism cannot afford enough policemen to follow the peasant about in his daily round and make him produce what economic growth requires. The devices of a police state, which work with tragic efficiency in urban areas, adapt with difficulty to the countryside.

In short, the fact that Marx was a city boy gives the Free World the chance to destroy in the next decade the myth that only Communist brutality can raise an underdeveloped area into self-sustaining growth. And if that myth is dissipated, the chance that Communism will gain power in the underdeveloped areas, whose destiny will determine the long-run balance in the world’s power, will be much reduced, if not once and for all eliminated.

Single Page

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada


September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content